Monday, October 1, 2012

Rising Up: Hale Woodruff's Murals From Talladega College, Alabama

From The Dallas Morning News, "African American Museum hosts mural exhibition by Hale Woodruff," by Michael Granberry, on 28 September 2012  --  Bold and unnerving, the Talladega Murals bring with them a staggering reputation. They endure as some of the most poignant depictions of slavery ever painted and rank as Hale Woodruff’s greatest artistic achievement.
For five months, they’re making their home in Dallas.

“Rising Up: Hale Woodruff’s Murals From Talladega College” officially opens Saturday and runs through February, though visitors to the State Fair of Texas can see them now.

Director Harry Robinson heralds the show as a landmark moment for the African American Museum of Dallas, ranking it among the top five in the venue’s history. Retired chief curator Phillip Collins, who’s overseeing the presentation of Woodruff’s paintings in Fair Park, calls the exhibition “a very important show, not only for its artistic merit but also its historical content.”
Dallas is the farthest west of 10 American cities to host the show, which began as a collaboration between Talladega College in Talladega, Ala., and the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, which last year embarked on a two-year project to “restore, research and exhibit” the murals.

Commissioned in 1938 to commemorate the 1867 founding of Talladega College and “celebrate its success as one of the nation’s first all-black colleges,” the murals have remained in Talladega since they were completed.

Restored and prepared at the High Museum for the national tour, the murals comprise what organizers call “six monumental canvases arranged in two cycles of three.” They portray “heroic efforts to resist slavery as well as moments in the history of the college, which opened in 1867 to serve the educational needs of a new population of freed slaves.”

Dallas’ is the only independent African-American museum in the country to stage the show, says Robinson, who sees an added benefit in its being a “homecoming for Hale Woodruff.”
Woodruff, who died in 1980, “exhibited here in 1936, at the Hall of Negro Life, during the Texas Centennial,” Robinson says. “It was on this spot right here.”


Robinson sees the show as profound because “it talks about a topic, or features work on a topic, that a lot of people are not comfortable with. When you talk about the slave ship La Amistad, there was mutiny on the ship, where the slaves decided, ‘We’re not going to be slaves.’”
Collins sees it as nothing less than “the first civil rights movement in the country.”

The first cycle of Woodruff’s murals depicts the uprising on the Amistad, “the trial that followed and the freedom and return to Africa of captives on the ship,” according to the show’s description. Companion murals show themes of the Underground Railroad, the founding of Talladega College and the construction of Savery Library, for which the murals were commissioned.

Rising Up: Hale Woodruff's Murals at Talladega College

Arguably, the most disturbing image is The Mutiny, which portrays an incident on the West Coast of Africa in 1839, when 53 Africans were kidnapped in what is now Sierra Leone, then sold — victims of the Spanish slave trade.

“Men, women and children were shackled and loaded aboard a ship,” reads the description, “where many endured physical abuse, sickness and death during a horrific journey to Havana, Cuba.”

Artist Hale Woodruff

Robinson is proud of the murals having been painted by a black artist and in Talladega.

Born in Cairo, Ill., in 1900, Woodruff studied at the John Herron Art Institute in Indianapolis, Ind., and the Fogg Museum at Harvard University. He was influenced, Collins says, by the great Diego Rivera, under whom he studied mural painting in Mexico.

Collins deems Woodruff “significant for his ability to combine the visual arts and the formality, the history of painting,” which he merges with Western European and African-American culture to create a stew that becomes a jarring look at American history. His content, Collins says, deals nobly and unforgettably with African-American culture.

“With the way he positions his figures, he conveys what we call ‘the pride,’” the curator says. “The whole idea of the new Negro comes out.”

The new Negro embodies education, history and pride, “and is,” Collins says, “something Woodruff conveys in all of his work.” (source: The Dallas Morning News,)

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